WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department is examining communications between right-wing extremists who breached the Capitol and Roger Stone, a close associate of former President Donald Trump, to determine whether Stone played any role in the extremists' plans to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden's electoral victory, a person familiar with the matter said Saturday.
Should investigators find messages showing that Stone knew about or took part in those plans, they would have a factual basis to open a full criminal investigation into him, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing inquiry. While that is far from certain, the person said, prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington are likely to do so if they can find that connection.
Stone, a self-described fixer for Trump, evaded a 40-month prison term when the former president commuted his sentence in July and pardoned him in late December. Stone had been convicted on seven felony charges, which included obstructing a House inquiry into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, lying to Congress and witness tampering. But that pardon does not protect Stone from future prosecutions.
Justice Department officials have debated for weeks whether to open a full investigation into Stone, the person said. While Stone spoke at an incendiary rally a day before the attack, had right-wing extremists act as his bodyguards and stood outside the Capitol, those actions themselves are not crimes.
But the FBI also has video and other information to suggest that in the days leading to and including the day of the assault, Stone associated with men who eventually stormed the building and broke the law, said the person familiar with the inquiry. That has given investigators a window to examine communications to see whether Stone knew of any plans to breach the complex.
The Washington Post earlier reported that the Justice Department was scrutinizing Stone's possible ties to right-wing extremists at the Capitol.
The New York Times has identified at least six members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right extremist group founded by former military and law enforcement personnel, who guarded Stone and were later seen inside the Capitol after a pro-Trump mob took the building by force.
According to a court filing. Oath Keeper member Jessica Watkins, who is one of several charged with rioting at the U.S. Capitol, met with Secret Service agents before the siege and received a VIP pass to the rally where then-President Donald Trump spoke.
A defense attorney for Watkins said in Saturday's filing that the Oath Keeper was in Washington, D.C., to "provide security" for the speakers at the Jan. 6 rally, where she stood within 50 feet of the stage.
In asking a judge to grant Watkins bail, the lawyer, public defender Michelle Peterson, said the government's filings in the case are "filled with rhetorical flourishes design to inflame the passions of its readers without supporting evidence."
"Watkins was present not as an insurrectionist, but to provide security to the speakers at the rally," according to the filing.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment. And neither Stone nor the Secret Service immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement posted online this month, Stone denied any role in the "lawless attack" and said that members of the Oath Keepers "should be prosecuted" if there was proof that they had broken the law. He added that he "saw no evidence whatsoever of illegal activity by any members" of the group.
Information for this article was contributed by Katie Benner of The New York Times and David Yaffe-Bellany of Bloomberg News (TNS).